Warm day, cold patch: City performing triage on potholes

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Potholes along Chicago’s 1,055 miles of arterial streets are getting triage treatment—even though cold patch lasts only a day or two in some cases.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel has ordered the Chicago Department of Transportation to assign all 30 of its pothole crews to main streets on Mondays and Fridays to address scores of potholes in blitzkrieg fashion using a grid system.

The Chicago Sun-Times reported last month that the cash-strapped city has been hit with a blizzard of damage to vehicle claims thanks to a relentless barrage of snow, cold and wild temperature swings that has turned city streets into the surface of the moon.

Since the New Year’s Eve storm that buried Chicago in 23 inches of snow before a record-setting cold snap, CDOT crews have filled roughly 240,000 potholes.

The pothole problem has generated so many complaints, Emanuel started crews early, added six more weekend crews and ordered his staff to develop what he called a “more robust” paving plan.

At last week’s City Council meeting alone, there were 543 pothole claims introduced, nearly double the 280 claims introduced last month. During the March City Council meeting last year, there were just 61 pothole claims introduced.

An influential alderman’s complaint about cracks along a recently repaved stretch of Wentworth also prompted the mayor to order a citywide audit to determine whether shoddy contracting set the stage for an epidemic of potholes.

On Monday, Emanuel held a news conference at the corner of Bryn Mawr and Chester near O’Hare International Airport before catching a flight to Austin, Texas, to attend the South-by-Southwest technology conference.

The mayor was asked whether the conveyor belt of press releases he’s been issuing about potholes—using the headline-grabbing term “strike teams” to describe pothole crews—has anything to do with the mayoral election less than a year away and his fear of being blamed.

“Voters are a little different than journalists. I kind of separate the two groups,” Emanuel said sarcastically.

Turning serious, the mayor said, “I’m addressing this because I’m concerned about it. And I was out at a grocery store just yesterday on 87th Street and folks are talking about it, rightfully so, because the streets look like what winter has left us.”

He added, “We are going to address the issue that’s foremost for the city. … Streets of Chicago have to be passable for all residents—whether it’s a parent taking a child to a school [or] it’s a police officer driving down the street. We can see what’s happened to our streets and how badly potholed they are. There are some potholes that literally just chew up a tire. What I want to do is make sure we’re on top our game.”

Even before this brutal winter, Emanuel noted that his “Building a New Chicago” construction program included 300 miles of newly-paved roads. Now, that program will be made even more “robust,” the mayor said, promising specifics sometime soon.

“Once you pave new roads, they are less likely to be affected by a bad winter which we have not had two [winters] prior to this,” the mayor said.

“The potholes that are left show … the extent to which our streets are old, how bad this winter was, but also the responsibility we have to make sure we do what we need to do so our streets are paved and we are actually meeting the needs of our residents and our businesses … who expect a smoothly paved street, and I expect us to work in delivering that.”

After the mayor left to catch his flight to O’Hare, newly appointed Transportation Commissioner Rebekah Scheinfeld acknowledged that cold patch is temporary. It sometimes lasts only a day or two before a truck drives over it, opening an even bigger hole.

“When you’re still dealing with freezing temperatures, you have to use means other than hot asphalt—and that’s the cold patch. We do what we can, and we’ll keep going out there to fill them as needed,” she said.

“Once the weather breaks and we’re able to start our hot asphalt crews for the summer and the crack seal program, that’ll be even more effective in addressing the problem.”

Still, Scheinfeld insisted that cold patch is worth the money and accomplishes more than simply going through the motions to make motorists feel like the city is doing something.

“It comes down to safety,” she said. “Even if it’s not gonna last the season, it’s important from a safety perspective to make sure that our roads are passable so people can get to work and school and play safely,” she said.

A television reporter said his cameraman saw a pothole crew putting cold patch in holes filled with water without tamping it down.

“Crews are expected to brush out holes—to brush out the moisture, fill the hole and tamp it down. That is proper procedure. That is proper technique,” said Tom Carney, deputy commissioner of CDOT’S division of in-house construction.

“If you can let me know [where it happened], we will address that issue with that crew.”


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